Whenever playwrights get about a half million dollars to help their careers I think it’s a good day.
And it was a great day this week at Yale’s Sprague Hall in New Haven when three playwrights -- among nine writers in all -- were the recipients of the inaugural Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes.
Never heard of them? You will.
As of this year they are among the most lucrative awards for writers -- and it is now the biggest one targeted for playwrights, with each writer receiving a no-strings $150,000.
Imagine being the playwright who gets that call.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama in 2007 with $175,000 in debt, told me when the phone rang last March at his hotel room in Manhattan -- he was casting for his new play “Choir Boy” for the Manhattan Theatre Club -- it took him a while to fully understand the nature of the news.
Remember, no one had heard of these new awards before, much less its financial component. When the information of the award registered, McCraney put down the phone and wept.
The other two playwrights are Stephen Adly Guirgis (“The Motherf----- With the Hat”) and Naomi Wallace (whose “In the Heart of America” was produced by Long Wharf Theatre in 1994, directed by Tony Kushner.)
Guirgis, too, got chocked up a bit when he told me what such an award means to him as a playwright trying to make a decent living in the American theater and finding that there are people who believe in you to give you such a gift.
Playwrights just never ever expect such financial rewards. They just hope their works are produced on stage somewhere. Their main goal is to make a living being a writer and most -- even the names of playwrights we all know and admire -- have to supplement their income by teaching or some other gig to pay the bills.
Sometimes their plays make it to off-Broadway or Broadway and they can parlay that cachet into productions at regional theaters across the country, especially if their work receive good notices or an Obie or Tony Award along the way. But those are the rare ones.
But such a congratulatory call out of the blue, well. That’s a gift from the theater gods.
Or at least Donald Windham, who died at the age of 89 in 2010 and his longtime partner Sandy M. Campbell, who died in 1988 at the age of 66. (Campbell attended the Kent School in Connecticut.)
Campbell was an actor (Broadway’s “Life with Father,” “A Streetcar Named Desire”) and writer and Windham wrote memoirs, novels, short stories, a children’s book and plays, one he co-wrote with his friend Tennessee Williams.
They both wanted to establish a literary award with their estate. When Windham died he left the bulk of his estate to Yale to create the prizes. Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library administers what will be the annual prizes.
The other six writers for the inaugural prizes were in the fiction category, Tom McCarthy, James Salter and Zoe Wicomb. In the non-fiction category they were Adina Hoffman, Jeremy Schahill and Jonny Steinberg.
After an elegantly written introduction for each recipient, the new president of Yale, Peter Salovey presented the nine writers the prize -- the actual award is among the loveliest designed I have seen, a true work of art. All nine on that Sprague stage had a glow about them, full of smiles, grace and a residue of shock as if they still couldn’t believe their good fortune
“Who knows what I’ll do with it,” says McCraney, 32, after the ceremony. “Hopefully l’ll just look at it in my checking account for about a few months before I decide to do anything with it.”
As part of literary festival in New Haven which will accompany the awards ceremony every year, McCraney will give a playwriting master class at the Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel St. in New Haven Friday from 4 to 6 p.m.; Guirgis’s class will be Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m.; and Wallace today from 4 to 6 p.m.